CALGARY - Leland Irving will never forget his first sliver of NHL action.
The Calgary Flames goaltender is hoping the 2011-12 campaign will be equally memorable for his final appearance at the American Hockey League level.
After seven big-league outings last winter, the 24-year-old is optimistic he’s ready for primetime, full-time.
“At last year’s training camp, I was ready to compete for a job, but I had no idea whether I was able to compete at that level. Just because you have success in the American League, it’s a whole other league when you get to the NHL,” Irving said. “It was only seven games, but that’s a huge stepping stone in my career and for my confidence, in general.
“I’m ready to make that next step and continue to develop. For now, the goal would be to be Kipper’s backup and start to push him.”
Miikka Kiprusoff will be the undisputed main man between the pipes next season at the Saddledome, but Irving will be a candidate for the backup gig after signing a one-year, two-way pact with the team Friday afternoon.
The final restricted free agent on the Flames’ off-season to-do list, Irving will earn an average annual value of US$687,500 with the big club and $207,500 if he’s re-assigned to the Abbotsford Heat.
In Friday’s new release to announce Irving’s new deal, Flames GM Jay Feaster issued a challenge to Irving and lanky Swede Henrik Karlsson, hinting both wannabe backups need to be better next season.
“Leland made some great strides last season in attempting to establish himself as being ready to carry the load as the backup goaltender in Calgary,” Feaster said in the statement. “At the same time, in order for us to have the success we want as a team, it will be necessary for our backup goalie not merely to start 20-plus games but also to win more than half those starts.”
While Kiprusoff re-established himself as one of the NHL’s most reliable backstops, Irving and Karlsson combined for just two victories — one apiece — for the Flames in 2011-12.
Irving finished with a 1-3-0-3 record, 3.20 goals-against average and .912 save percentage on his NHL stats sheet. Although Karlsson was on a one-way deal (and still is), the soft-spoken puck-stopper from Swan Hills, Alta., was called up from Abbotsford to make a couple of spot starts as the Flames fought for their playoff lives in March.
If Irving gets his way, he won’t be shuttling back and forth between the Saddledome and the Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Centre next season.
“I just wanted to be given a fair opportunity and a good chance to battle for that backup spot,” Irving said. “It shouldn’t matter coming into camp what kind of contract the goalies have. The guy that earns it should get the job. They’ve proven to me that they are willing to go with the top guy, and they showed that at the end of the year by bringing me up a few times.”